With SNAP participation having reached all-time highs in the past few years, some critics claim that the program is growing out of control and needs to be slashed. But, in reality, SNAP’s recent growth is temporary and shows that the program is working as designed.
SNAP responded quickly and effectively to the recession. SNAP caseloads and spending rose considerably when the recession hit. That’s precisely what SNAP was designed to do: quickly help more low-income families during economic downturns as poverty rises, unemployment mounts, and more people need assistance.
As the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has stated, “the primary reason for the increase in the number of participants was the deep recession from December 2007 to June 2009 and the subsequent slow recovery.”
As the economy has recovered, SNAP caseload growth has slowed dramatically. SNAP caseload growth began slowing at the end of 2010 and caseloads have remained essentially flat since peaking at nearly 48 million people late last year (see first graph).
SNAP caseloads and spending are expected to fall in coming years as the economy improves. CBO predicts that SNAP spending will fall to 1995 levels as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2019 (see second graph). This decline reflects shrinking caseloads as well as the expiration in November of the Recovery Act’s temporary benefit boost, which will cut benefits for all SNAP participants.
Because SNAP is projected to shrink as a share of the economy, it is not contributing to the nation’s long-term budget problems. Unlike health care programs and Social Security, there are no significant demographic or programmatic pressures that will cause SNAP costs to grow faster than the economy.